Interview with Simone Simons: "We live in strange times"
The EPICA frontwoman in chat with Dark Divas about the new album Omega, her longing for the stage, writing as therapy and frustration in the time of Covid.
5. Feb 2021
Simone, no other EPICA album required as much patience from fans as your eighth studio album, Omega, which will be released on February 26 – five years after "The Holographic Principle." How important was the break for you and the band?
Simone Simons: It was very important because we never took a break from the beginning of our career. We kept writing songs and recording albums, even while on tour. The pace was very fast, and eventually, our batteries were depleted. So, we decided that we've worked so hard for so long – we needed a break to get motivated and approach a new album with a fresh perspective.
On Omega, you stay true to your style and don't experiment with new styles, yet the album showcases a significantly evolved side of EPICA. The songs harmoniously blend together, creating a musically coherent overall picture, much like an epic symphony. Is this something you actively pursued in songwriting from the beginning, or did it simply "happen"?
Simone: Most of it just happened naturally. During the songwriting process, six creative minds come together, even though each of us has a different style. For Omega, we aimed for an organic sound. Our last two albums were very packed, very energetic – there were no real resting points. They were kind of "in your face." (laughs) We wanted to take a step back, introduce more dynamics and transparency, and create more space for vocals. Typically, vocals come in at the end of the songwriting process. This time, we experimented with vocals earlier in the process, and then adjusted the songs accordingly.
How challenging is it to mold the different ideas and visions of six established artists into a coherent whole that everyone stands behind?
Simone: It's a matter of give and take. You can't always get your way or be right in everything. All five guys have written songs, and the composer of each song has the final say. Of course, there are things you might have preferred to do differently from your perspective. But that's just how it is when you're working on something as a team.
Although you had good timing, the pandemic still occasionally threw a wrench into the production. You had to record your vocals in a different studio, far from your producer. Do these cloud productions, as many bands are currently doing, work well?
Simone: Yes, they do work quite well. We found a good studio, and I had my first experiences with Zoom there. In this studio, they worked for two days with Joost (Editor's note: Joost van den Broek, producer) before I recorded my vocals to set up the recording. In the end, it was wonderful for me. I had Zoom in my recording booth with Joost on the tablet. When we finished, we sent the files back and forth. I found it quite relaxing. I could drive to work in the morning with my lunchbox and be back home in the afternoon. Our son was at home since there was no school, and since my husband also had to work, I recorded my vocals in the morning, and my husband would leave in the afternoon. It worked quite well for us. Mark (Editor's note: Mark Jansen, guitar and growls) lives in Sicily. He recorded at home in his home studio, which he had equipped with new equipment before the pandemic. So, we were actually very well prepared for the pandemic, even though we didn't know it. (laughs)
Are the possibilities of digitalization a chance for your band, which is scattered across four different countries, to explore new avenues in the creative process?
Simone: I found the experience of working together on songs in person to be enjoyable. That was fun. Of course, it doesn't always work that way. The members of my husband's band (Editor's note: Oliver Palotai from Kamelot) also live in four different countries, so they always have to do everything digitally. And they even have the time zone difference to contend with. But it is advantageous when you can sit together and exchange ideas quickly, rather than waiting to see if an email has been answered. This way, you have direct creative interaction and can reach results more swiftly.
Do you have a personal favorite on the album? And if so, what makes that song special for you?
Simone: I love "Code of Life." It's a song that immediately blew me away – even as a demo right at the beginning. It suits my taste perfectly. I adore these Arabic influences and the atmospheric singing. The song has a fantastic drive.
The Omega point represents the end and endpoint in the theological and philosophical consideration of evolution. Generally, your and Mark's lyrics tend to be philosophical, and at times even spiritual – with "heavy" themes as a foundation. Is philosophy and spirituality something you also engage with in your private life, or are you consciously using your music as an outlet here?
Simone: More the latter. Mark is the one who is very interested in science, and I've always seen myself as the philosopher who questions everything. (laughs) Writing lyrics is a form of therapy; you free your thoughts and infuse them into the music. We spend a lot of time on this. It's an essential part of Epica. Mark and I divide the songs. He writes the lyrics for the songs he has composed himself, like "Abyss Of Time," "Kingdom Of Heaven," or "Twilight Reverie." He often has a very clear idea of what he wants. I handle the other songs. We then ensure that we have a common thread running through them.
Mark mentioned that you've had the live experience of the songs on stages worldwide in mind from the beginning. The tour has had to be postponed twice due to Covid and will now only take place in 2022 – effectively a year after the release of Omega. Do you believe the magic of a new album can be kept alive for so long?
Simone: I have no idea. It's quite sad that we can't promote the new album live on stage. But we're living in a strange time, and we have to adapt. However, if I see that our older songs have never lost their magic when performed live, I'm hopeful. But many bands are currently facing this problem. It's unfortunate, but it can't be changed.
How much fun did you have with the acoustic version of "Abyss of Time"?
Simone: A lot of fun. Even though the recordings were a bit stressful, as they were done during a lightning visit to Holland in June. I went to Holland with Stefan Heilemann, who is responsible for our artwork. We arrived in the early evening, I recorded the songs, and I fell into bed exhausted at 11 PM. The next morning, except for Mark, there was a photoshoot with the rest of the band members so that Stefan could photograph all the guys to finish the artwork.
Simone Simons is the frontwoman of the symphonic metal band EPICA. In addition to her role as a singer, she is active as a model, beauty blogger, and photographer.
Recording an album has a lot to do with perfectionism, can be somewhat boring, but certainly exhausting because you have to repeat the same things over and over again. It's different with these acoustic versions. You don't take yourself so seriously, you're spontaneous, and you still want to create something beautiful.
One might imagine the production of an album somewhat romantically as a layperson, but it's hard work, which doesn't always feel fun.
Simone: Definitely. I prefer live performances because there's a different energy there. In the studio, you often feel mentally drained at the end of the day because you have to repeat things constantly. It's physically and mentally demanding. Except for Ariën (Note: Ariën Van Weesenbeek, drums), he's a machine – he does everything in three days. (laughs) But for vocals and guitar, recording can take up to three weeks.
You recorded "The Phantom Agony" when you were just 18 years old. Your lives have changed completely in the 18 years that followed – but so has the music industry. The value of art in the age of digitalization is different. Everything is available anytime and anywhere, mostly for free. How do you view this development as an artist who knows both worlds?
Simone: That's the way of the times. Fewer CDs are being purchased, streaming offers many possibilities. I, too, started buying records on iTunes at some point because it's more convenient and you have all your music available on all devices. But a great thing for us is that metalheads, for the most part, are collectors and still buy CDs and vinyl. So, we put a lot of love into the design of our merchandise.
Have you also jumped on the vinyl trend?
Simone: No, I have to admit. I have all the Epica LPs at home, but they're all still wrapped. (laughs)
The music industry, especially the metal industry, currently doesn't paint a romantic picture of itself. Last year, the case of the booking legend John Finberg caused quite a bit of negative attention, and now, Marco from Nightwish has taken a swipe at the monopolization of art and streaming services as part of his departure from Nightwish. How much fun is it to be active as a musician or band these days?
Simone: I believe it's partly due to the difficult times we live in. Musicians have had time to think during Covid. And you get a kind of withdrawal syndrome. Bands that toured a lot suddenly found themselves at home. Some find it comfortable, while others are completely frustrated. I'm somewhere in between. We had a break before "Omega," and my batteries were and are fully charged. So I was ready to get back into it. Even though I love being at home, I love traveling. If you're a live musician who loves touring and lives for it, it's very challenging to deal with this situation. I don't know Marco well, but he's a nice guy. He's been a musician for a long time and, therefore, leads a taxing life and a demanding lifestyle. Eventually, the fire just goes out. You have to give yourself time to rekindle it. Some people decide that they can't go on like this, and it's time for something else. And if you're also battling depression, as Marco has written, you have to take action.
How can an artist overcome the gap between business and art, a gap that COVID is currently deepening, without doubting the bigger picture, as Marco did?
Simone: Honestly, I'm not very interested in the business side of things. It's a necessary part, and Epica has become a big band. But we have a large team that takes care of that. The real problem is that we've gone through the creative process, the album is finished, and now we want to go on tour. I'm not the kind of artist who says, "I'll create something else instead." For me, this disrupts the natural flow of the creative process. Without playing the songs live, it feels like all the work was in vain.
So, is this creative process only truly complete when you receive fan feedback on stage?
Exactly. The certainty that we won't be able to tour for a long time diminishes some of the joy in the new album. Because we're, of course, very proud of our new work.
EPICA is a symphonic metal band from the Netherlands founded in 2022.
Simone Simons - Vocals Mark Jansen - Guitar, Growling Isaac Delahaye - Guitar Rob van der Loo - Bass Coen Janssen - Keyboards Ariën van Weesenbeek - Drums
In addition to your work with Epica, you work as a beauty, fashion, and lifestyle blogger, influencer, and photographer – and you manage daily life at home with a seven-year-old son who has probably become more demanding during these homeschooling times. How do you find the balance between your personal and professional life with this workload?
Simone: It's very challenging. There's very little time and space left. I'm quite flexible for my band, and I do my blog as the mood strikes me. But I do notice that if I haven't created something myself, I feel unbalanced. Perhaps it's a kind of artist's syndrome, where you always have to create something. (laughs) But the worst part for me is that my son, even if he enjoyed being at home in the beginning, can't go to school. Managing everyday life is a lot to handle, but somehow, in the end, you get everything sorted out.
Simone, thank you very much for the interview!